2013 Hillman Officers’ Award for Public Service
Garment workers in Bangladesh
In Memory of Aminul Islam
It is a sad and sobering commentary on the state of social responsibility in the contemporary apparel industry that 102 years after the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York city, major apparel brands and retailers are still producing at factories whose practices endanger the lives of their employees.
Aminul Islam was a Dhaka-based garment worker who worked for the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity (BCWS), a leading labor rights group in Bangladesh. After large-scale worker protests in 2010, the government revoked BCWS’ NGO registration, froze the organization’s bank account, and arrested three of its leaders.
Aminul was detained and tortured by officers of the National Security Intelligence, in an effort to extract a confession that BCWS leaders had fomented riots among workers. Aminul documented his 2010 abduction and torture on a labor website. Later, he helped arrange interviews for an ABC News report about unsafe conditions at a factory where 29 workers died in a fire while sewing clothes for Tommy Hilfiger.
Aminul was found tortured and murdered shortly after the broadcast aired. All indications are that Aminul’s murder was in retaliation for his labor rights advocacy. The premeditated torture and murder of a labor rights advocate is a horrifying act with profoundly disturbing implications for the future of the apparel industry and workers’ rights in Bangladesh. Brands and retailers sourcing from Bangladesh, and benefiting from the extraordinary low wages that make it one of the cheapest places in the world to produce apparel, have a solemn responsibility to take meaningful action to ensure that no more such preventable tragedies befall that country’s garment workers.
The government and security forces continue to carry on a campaign of harassment, intimidation and violence against BCWS and other labor rights advocates. Kalpona Akter and Babul Akhter, two other leaders of BCWS, were also arrested, jailed and beaten in 2010. They were arrested on unsubstantiated allegations of fomenting and/or participating in unrest among garment workers. Both must now stand trial in the criminal charges against them. Babul faces six charges and Kalpona now faces five. These trials could take anywhere from one to five years to reach a verdict and if they are convicted of any of the charges against them, they will be subject to years, and possibly decades, in prison.
We hope that public scrutiny of the situation in Bangladesh will deter further acts of violence.
The Workers Rights Consortium, along with labor rights groups around the world, has been advocating a comprehensive set of fire safety reforms in Bangladesh and has been asking major brands and retailers to commit to implementing these reforms.
In 2012, PVH Corp, the parent company of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, and the German retailer, Tchibo, signed the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement that embodies these reforms. However, because it is essential to achieve powerful leverage over the industry in Bangladesh for the program to work, it cannot proceed until more brands and retailers sign on.
We hope that they will.
We are humbled to present the 2013 Officers’ Award for Public Service, in memory of Aminul Islam, to all the garment workers risking their lives speaking up for safe workplaces in Bangladesh.